Since the trade of Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups, one of the more interesting storylines of the season has been the Nuggets’ success abandoning a conventional star-centric roster for more of a team-oriented approach. While there’s no doubt Denver’s transformation has re-invigorated the team by allowing more of the role players to shine at once, it’s the Oklahoma City Thunder and their two-man show that’s consistently outclassed their Northwest Division rivals and most of the western conference as well.
In reality we are likely seeing the realities of injury and inconsistency over a long season finally set in on the Nuggets’ wildly successful honeymoon. Without getting too carried away about the two losses to OKC, it’s worth noting that the Thunder are proving to be a painful reminder or something we should already know – being edgy and different can make you stand out but it won’t mean anything if you can’t compete with the best the old-fashioned way too.
In the playoffs, depth is more overrated than most want to admit. It’s often familiarity and talent that win out in terms of execution and winning a seven game series. What I couldn’t help but notice in tonight’s game was the fact that despite Denver having a more versatile and talented supporting cast, the Thunder know their roles better. On top of that, no matter how bad it can look at times there’s no replacing what proven all-star performers can do for you on their own. Besides a lack of toughness on Denver’s part, OKC won this game because they simply executed their jobs with far more confidence than the Nuggets.
First things first, I thought OKC quickly dispelled any rumors they’re more concerned with playoff positioning that simply winning. If anything the Thunder looked like they can’t wait to get a piece of the Nuggets and the plan is to keep getting W’s no matter what. Even after falling into an early hole going scoreless for the first four minutes, the Nuggets never really assumed control or acted like they were the better team that should be winning this game.
The two biggest factors in the loss was no doubt point-guard play and the Nuggets bench. Ty Lawson turned in his worst performance as a starter that I can remember. Russell Westbrook toyed with him and simply bullied him out of the way most of the night without Ty putting up much of a fight. As the physicality of the game continued Ty seemed worn down and became even less aggressive with his shot and Denver’s shooters were left unsuccessfully scrambling to create difficult shots for themselves. Lawson likely won’t be this horrible again, but fatigue and even Lawson’s youth and inexperience are no excuses for a performance like that as Denver is going nowhere without more dependable efforts out of their starting point guard no matter how difficult the matchup.
Lawson’s struggles are not the lone reason for the offensive woes the Nuggets have slumped themselves into. I noted in the Lakers recap that the fact the Nuggets are winning despite struggling so much to execute an offense was quite frankly remarkable. Collectively the Nuggets are in a jump-shooting slump and have been for a while. No one could make a shot and once again few players are willing to remedy it by mixing it up inside and challenging defenses with strong moves to the rim. Nene started the game active and in dominating form, but later disappeared and ended up taking only 9 shots and a grand total of two field goal attempts in the second half. With no inside game to speak of it was brick city for the Nuggets offense and they could not seem to will themselves out of it by getting aggressive at the rim.
This is a disappointing trend we have seen in the offense. Even during hot shooting stretches we are going through awful free throw shooting and a bevy of turnover problems when they do get it going. The Nuggets can’t afford Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari to be so inconsistent with their shots and it is forcing guys like Kenyon Martin and Raymond Felton to step outside of their roles to shoulder more of the offense. Denver is not at their best playing like this and it’s painful to see that dangerous offensive potential ruined by self-inflicted mistakes.
All of this of course pales in comparison to the pathetic effort the bench put up. Outside of Raymond Felton, who played more of a starter’s role as he is prone to do when Lawson struggles – every member of Denver’s bench was a disgrace. JR Smith and Al Harrington did what they always do. By that I mean they mostly just chuck and contribute next to nothing when they aren’t taking and making difficult shots. You can handle an off-shooting night from either player so long as they contribute some solid defense or an honest effort in any other part of the game. As JR and Big Al have shown all year, they don’t have much if any of that to offer. Particularly disappointing is JR’s predictable no-show after last night’s fantastic game against Dallas. That is what JR does. There isn’t much more to say about it, I rest my case. Feel free to stay on the bandwagon that JR is some kind of superstar being cruelly oppressed by Karl’s personal hatred towards him – I know some people who’ve been on that kick for about seven years.
What is so disappointing is the fact that the collective effort from Denver was so lifeless during such a big opportunity to make a statement. You have to credit the Thunder, as they were the ones making a strong statement and showing off their experience and familiarity with each other much more than the Nuggets can at this point.
My feeling is the Nuggets are not as bad as they showed during this game. I am still not sold that the Thunder would be a worse matchup than Dallas in terms of the playoff picture. It is painfully obvious what the Thunder do and how they are going to beat you in a series and Denver has no excuse not to compete with them. Getting blown out in bullying fashion is doing nothing to help their cause, and the division champion Thunder have made it clear that right now they are healthier, more prepared, more confident and simply more ready to take on the challenge of a playoff run at this point in time.
For the Nuggets, it’s time to refocus and continue the process of finding a winning formula and being able to carry it out consistently. I do not think it is a matter of game planning or execution. Rather I believe it is a mix of getting healthy and simply getting tougher play out of the quality pieces they already have. This team should have enough pride not to allow them to play as soft and as scared as they did tonight against an opponent that has not only taken over the division crown but now made a strong statement that they likely can’t wait to face Denver in the first round of the playoffs.
Pace Factor: 89.5 – Slow and indicative of how the Thunder controlled the game throughout
Offensive Efficiency: 99.5 – Awful, Kenyon Martin was the team’s best scoring option
Defensive Efficiency: 116.2 – Pathetic